Served in Combat

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Tropes and genres
Related tropes/genresPTSD, flashbacks, Starsky's Military Background
See alsoWomen In Refrigerators
Related articles on Fanlore.

Served in combat refers to the trope of using a character's military backstory, usually involving experience in combat, to bring the angst and the manpain to the characterization and plots of the story. The focus is on the individual experiences of the character and their personal emotional response to those experiences. The effects of the historical conflicts on civilians, or the socio-political context for the war itself are rarely touched on. This is often, but not always, a mirror of how the show itself would use combat experiences to create a backstory of emotional conflict and turmoil for its characters. The use of this trope is concentrated in Western media fandoms and often plays out as hurt/comfort, frequently in a way many fans find problematic.

Use in Canon

Many fandoms, even those where the canon setting has little or nothing to do with the military, have characters with a military backstory that includes combat experiences. These characters are nearly always men. The military past might show up in canon in the form of an injury or psychological problem and is sometimes revealed in an off-hand manner as part of the character's history, or it might be revealed at a crucial moment for maximum impact or plot development.

TV Tropes describes the use of The Vietnam War in many stereotypical and inaccurate ways in source texts to provide a conveniently fraught backstory for eighties action heroes without ever paying any attention to the effect of the wars on Vietnamese people. Even though multiple wars involving many nations were fought in Vietnam, the term Vietnam War is commonly used to refer to the US involvement exclusively. Many television shows of the same era have characters with Vietnam War experiences that marked their lives negatively. This trope in Western war films of the seventies and beyond marked a radical change from the way American and British films tended to portray soldiers returning from World War II.

The trope and subsequent fannish interpretation of the works which contain the trope take advantage of post-1970s designation of PTSD as an official psychiatric diagnosis. As with most tropes, the mainstream understanding of the diagnosis is somewhat flawed[1]—fans often follow along with the trope unthinkingly, which causes offence in people with PTSD or similar disabilities. The usage of the trope represents misunderstanding of the sheer controversy of the PTSD diagnosis—whether it is a Western medical model creation or something that is a universal response to specific and definable trauma—controversy which is still going on today. It is also rarer, in correlation with this, to see PTSD represented in conflicts that took place before the Vietnam War, such as with mentions of 'soldier's heart' and 'shellshock' (the American Civil War and World War I terminology, respectively) though certain fanworks in the 19th century versions of Sherlock Holmes (for example, Four Minor Interludes for the Solo Violin by Katie Forsythe) do attempt to address PTSD in the time setting. It is also, as mentioned above, rare for women to be depicted as suffering from PTSD after military service.

Canon Examples

  • Lord Peter Wimsey's (Peter Wimsey) PTSD as a result of his WWI military experiences.
  • Rick Simon's (Simon & Simon) Vietnam War experiences as a member of the US military.
  • John Watson's (Sherlock Holmes) experiences in Afghanistan while serving with the British forces as a doctor. In the re-boot, Sherlock (BBC), Watson has once again served in a conflict in Afghanistan with the British forces.
  • John Sheppard's (Stargate Atlantis) experiences in Afghanistan while in the US Air Force.
  • Bodie's (The Professionals) experiences as a mercenary in Angola. These led to fans creating The Game fanon.
  • Al Calavicci's (Quantum Leap) experiences while serving in Vietnam (these played a key role in several episodes as well as the series finale).
  • Sonny Crockett's (Miami Vice) combat tours in the Vietnam War as a member of the US military.
  • Roger Loccoco (Wiseguy) who served not only in Vietnam as a member of US forces but later as an assassin while working undercover for the CIA.
  • Jim Ellison (The Sentinel) whose service as an Army Ranger left him stranded in the jungles of Peru and provided a launching point for the premise of the series.
  • John Winchester (Supernatural) is shown as a returning veteran, having served in the US Marines in the Vietnam War, in a flashback.
  • Michael Westen and Sam Axe (Burn Notice) are a former spy and Navy Seal respectively.
  • The A-Team - Framed for a crime they didn't commit, the four members of the A-Team were Vietnam vets who survived in the Los Angeles underground by being heroes for hire.
  • Napoleon Solo (Man from Uncle): lead UNCLE Enforcement agent, American who served in the Korean War.
  • Colleen McMurphy (China Beach): The final season of the show explored McMurphy's PTSD some twenty years after her tours in Vietnam.

Use in Fanworks

Many fans seize on the canonical history of their characters and flesh out their military pasts. The accuracy of the fan's take on military life and war-time experiences can vary from attempts at sincere accuracy in the portrayal of both the conflicts themselves and the effects of war-time trauma, to nothing more than a chance to bring on the emoporn. Fanworks often contain glaring errors in depicting even contemporary conflicts—SGA fanon has John Sheppard speaking Arabic after serving in non-Arabic-speaking Afghanistan.[2] This trope often merges with disability fic when characters have or are given injuries or mental illnesses due to their combat experiences.

In some instances, even when it was not explicitly stated in canon that a character had served in combat, fans would use the trope in so many contexts that it became fanon. An example of this is David Starsky's (Starsky and Hutch) service in the US forces in the Vietnam War, which was the subject of a 2004 SHarecon panel.

In fact, because so many TV shows in the 70s and 80s used combat service as a backstory for their characters, fans published Time and Again, an ongoing series of novels that crosses characters who served in US forces in the Vietnam War.

Some fans use the traumatic past of the canon character, while completely ignoring the trauma visited on the people who lived with the actual conflict going on around them, often to provide reasons for their hero's inability to form relationships. This kind of characterization draws inspiration directly from the portrayal of US Vietnam War veterans in films and television and from the canon source of the fanwork itself.

Canon often does influence fannish use of the trope. Supernatural canon makes very little of John Winchester's war service, and fandom has mostly ignored it in favour of other canon events for bringing the angst. However, in SGA, John Sheppard's war-time past is shown on-screen in a flashback that mirrors his experiences in the present, but the show keeps the impact to the personal, never drawing any parallels between the colonialist and imperialist aspects of the conflict in Afghanistan and the show's portrayal of those same issues in its universe. {I seem to recall that in the episode, they don't ever show any Afghan forces or civilians—making invisible the major victims of the conflict. Is that correct?} Fanworks have mostly followed the lead of canon and kept to the personal, emotional impact on one US soldier.

Some fans find the use of historical conflict as fictional backstory ethnocentric and offensive. See the Talk Page for further discussion of additional content that might be needed on this article.


  1. ^ RachelManija. (2007-2010). A User's Guide to PTSD: A Four Part Series. Webcite.
  2. ^ My personal recollection is that this error appears in many SGA stories. facetofcathy